Michael Croley’s father was born dirt-poor to an abusive alcoholic father in Appalachia, but managed to build the life of his dreams far away from moonshining.
Editor’s Note: In this series, we will be sharing posts from a blog called We Represent the 47 Percent. We share these not because of a desire to endorse a candidate, but rather because they are compelling, emotional, and relatable stories of real men doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
Dear Mr. Romney:
A month ago, my father asked me to go for a ride with him in the car. We were on a family vacation and he knew I was getting ready to ask my girlfriend to marry me (she said yes!). As we got in the car, my father, a quiet man who doesn’t access his feelings or emotions very easily, said he wanted to have a talk. “You know you’ve picked something to do with your life where you’re probably never going to make very much money, but in the long run that’s probably going to be better for you because you’re doing something you love, right?” I told him I was, that I thought being a teacher was important and that I was good at my job. He wanted to know if I was prepared, that if Mary and I would be okay with the amount of our incomes, and if we might be prepared for the stress that comes with worrying about money. The talk was novel because my father has never been prone to giving unsolicited advice but he was worried about me and he wanted to make sure that I had thought about the practical as much as the emotional.
Now, Mr. Romney, that little anecdote may not seem like it has much to do with you or your callous and callow comments about the “47 percent” but it has never been lost on me that the circumstances my father grew up in required him to pull himself up—in the spirit your party trumpets every chance it gets—and make something of his life. A son of Appalachia, his father was an alcoholic and a moonshiner who sometimes hit him, his brothers and his mother. He recalls being eight years old and having drunks, hunting liquor, crash into their three-room house in the middle of the night and call for his father to fetch them quarts of booze and offering for payment toasters and car engine parts when what they needed was money and food. As a boy he hunted his own meat, helped raise vegetables in the garden, and rode with his grandfather to take corn to be ground into meal at the country store, but there was really never enough to get by.
What saved my father is what has saved me but in a much different way: books. My uncles love to talk about how the Bookmobile would travel down their dusty rode and how, “Ray would get every book they’d let him check out and read each one cover to cover before it came back. And then he’d get another armful.” My father told me Moby Dick was the first book he ever read that made him realize there was an entire world outside the hills of Kentucky. His education began in books and they launched his dreams.
He was accepted to Berea College and when he told the superintendent of the school system, the man pulled him aside, proud as he could be, and said, “Son, if you go to school there, one day you’re going to make $50,000 a year.” My father told me this story one night when I was home from graduate school and we were driving the country roads out where he had grown up, engulfed in the shadows of mountains. As he said the number of the salary, he said it with supreme wonder and nostalgia. “I couldn’t even begin to imagine that kind of money back then and when I started making that much I remembered him saying that to me. And now,” he continued, “I make three times that.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t make any sense.” This boy, this ragged red-headed boy whose jeans I’ve seen in the pictures are too short for his legs, who took one blow after another from his father, who was so stubborn and prideful that as an adult when that same man offered him $500 he refused to take it. And when my grandfather went inside and got his shotgun and aimed it on my father, insisting he take the money, he still refused.
I admire no man on planet earth more than my father, Mr. Romney. Not just because he pulled himself up by those famous bootstraps but because he has never forgotten what it felt like to have absolutely nothing and he instilled that same sense of empathy in my brother and me. “We have to pay taxes,” he said once, “so that poor people can have something to eat on.” He knew abject poverty from the inside out, he lived it in ways you probably mock with people that pay $50,000 to have lunch with you—the same awe inspiring salary amount he did not believe was possible when he was a seventeen-year old boy.
I don’t believe this letter will really reach you, Mr. Romney. You will write me off as part of the 47 percent, an Obama supporter for sure. And you’re right. But come this November, when my father and I go to the polls, I know our votes will probably cancel each other’s out, but that does not make me love or respect him any less. He dedicated his life to giving me opportunities. And while he may agree with your economic policies (vague as I think they are) or in your ability to have the country’s economic climate improve, he’s not the same man as you. He’s a man who worked 100 hours a week as an executive, whose father’s only offering to him was not a portfolio of stocks or private school, but $500 dollars in sum total, an amount he could not afford to walk away from, and yet he did. At gunpoint.
That’s the courage of your convictions, Mr. Romney and I tell you all this because what your comments the other night showed me is that you don’t really understand what Americans go through everyday. You have never known great struggle, financially, and that is absolutely not your fault. But think about this. Think about that moment when your beautiful wife was diagnosed with M.S. and your face and back went hot with the sensation of fear and then, yes, looming death. Maybe you lost feeling in your legs and had to sit down and all day, as you turned over those words in your head and what it meant, you felt that empty gnawing in your stomach as the love of your life had been declared sick with an incurable disease. Your wife has said, “It turned me to dust.” I imagine those were very tough moments for you both, moments that you never want to live through again.
I’m here to tell you, sir, that all across this country, every single day, that a good number of the people that comprise that 47 percent you chastised in a cheap vote grab to your donors experience that same gut-wrenching feeling on their walk to the grocery store, to the utility company, to the doctor’s office. They live below the poverty line and unlike you or me, they know that tomorrow is not guaranteed for them. I want my president to show passion and concern for these people. I tell my students all the time that nobody wants your sympathy; they want your empathy. We, the 47 percent, want you to understand that all the people of this land matter, that your job, should you get elected this year is to reach out to them and help them manage the difficulties of life. It’s the lesson my father taught me, the implied vow he took when he worked 100 hours a week so that I would never want for anything in my life, and why I will feel sad when he casts a vote for a man who is not good enough to earn the privilege of his support and whose honor I hope to never disappoint.